07/11/2006 - 21:00

People not part of the process

07/11/2006 - 21:00


Save articles for future reference.

Current parliamentary moves to impose daylight saving upon Western Australians shows just how many state MPs have little regard for democratic principles and processes.

Current parliamentary moves to impose daylight saving upon Western Australians shows just how many state MPs have little regard for democratic principles and processes.

State Scene’s position on this recurring issue is one of neutrality; neither for nor against daylight saving being adopted permanently or on a two-, three- or 10-year trial basis.

Like many, I’d have difficulty recalling how I voted in the 1975, 1984, and 1992 referendums, all of which rejected daylight saving.

What’s particularly disconcerting, however, is that despite three referendums, politicians on both sides of the political spectrum have been climbing over themselves to impose something voters clearly rejected by majority vote that many times.

This disregard for a hat-trick of democratic rejections is the substantive issue, nothing else.

Put otherwise, a majority within a tiny group of people who happen to be MPs – all 91 of them – has disregarded three state-wide referendum majorities that clearly rejected daylight saving as a permanent feature of WA’s long, hot summers.

Can one be more anti-democratic than that?

Although failed Liberal leader Matt Birney and failed Labor minister John D’Orazio may have enjoyed their few brief moments of TV limelight, neither has much to be proud of by wilfully disregarding those referendum results.

The Birney-D’Orazio move certainly suggests Western Australians can have no faith in the outcomes of future referendums.

Let’s also not forget that, just after Labor frontbencher, Alan Carpenter, became premier, he intimated he’d like to see a reversal of the February 2005 referendum on retail trading hours.

Moreover, the practice of re-presenting referendums suggests MPs will simply keep putting them up until they eventually get the result they want, after which the public will never again be offered another.

If so many politicians place such little value and faith upon majority democratic decisions, why not scrap the referendum process?

Why not cease pretending we still have one tiny tenuous link to claiming to be something resembling a democracy.

The Birney-D’Orazio move has shown that neither gentleman, nor many of their parliamentary backers, believes in fair play or democratic decision-making by voters, preferring instead politicians having monopoly control of the entire legislative process.

Their attitude, pure and simple, is that since they are MPs, they should be the bosses, with voters doing as they’re told; not the other way around.

Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, both have retail trade backgrounds – Mr Birney in auto parts and Mr D’Orazio in pharmaceuticals – where they were the boss, which suggests old habits die hard.

Both individuals have essentially said, ‘I want it and I intend getting it – and according to my rules, not by the rules of democracy and fair play’.

Neither has exactly excelled in the political realm, and their failure to now respect the 1992 referendum outcome shows each has a long way to pedal before becoming legislators of worth.

A good place for both to have begun improving their less-than-impressive records would have been to begin showing respect for democratic principles and processes.

There are many ways this could have been done.

First and foremost, they could have individually or jointly moved for WA to adopt citizen-initiated referendums, as exist in Switzerland and about half of America’s states.

Secondly, they could have included daylight saving on their respective party platforms at the coming state election and highlighted, in unambiguous terms and loudly, this plank across WA during the campaign to bring on a referendum before daylight saving can be adopted.

Instead, they’ve teamed-up and pushed this move from out of the blue and promoted their cause only within parliament house.

Now, since most voters may have forgotten how clear-cut WA’s three previous referendums were, it’s worth highlighting their outcomes.

The first, initiated by the Sir Charles Court-led Liberals, was held on March 8 1975, with 546,110 electors voting.

After excluding the tiny informal number of votes, those backing daylight saving totalled 250,644 (46.34 per cent) compared with opponents at 290,179 (53.66 per cent).

The majority was thus 39,535 votes with 30 of the state’s 51 electorates showing majorities favouring the ‘no’ case.

Interestingly, metropolitan Perth split nearly evenly – 51.38 per cent for, to 48.62 per cent against.

Non-metropolitan WA, however, was strongly opposed, with only 37.80 per cent backing daylight saving compared with 62.20 per cent against.

Nine years later, the Burke Govern-ment called another referendum and the outcome was even less impressive than for the 1975 ‘yes’ case.

Out of the 840,032 enrolled voters 726,490 votes were cast, with 329,536 (45.65 per cent) backing it compared with 392,340 (54.35 per cent) against. Only 14 electorates backed daylight saving to 43 against.

Again, metropolitan Perth was split almost evenly – 50.80 per cent for to 49.20 against, while only 34.35 per cent of non-metropolitan voters supported daylight saving.

Then came 1992’s referendum, called by the Lawrence Labor government.

This time the outcome was similar, even though backers of daylight saving gained marginally – 399,441 (46.86 per cent) for, compared with 452,985 (53.14 per cent), against.

City voters came in with 52.92 per cent support compared with only 29.83 per cent of non-metropolitan voters.

Over the three attempts, just more than 46 per cent of voters statewide backed daylight saving.

In Perth, a small majority (52 per cent) supported the move, compared with about 34 per cent support beyond Perth.

Under no stretch of any imagination can such outcomes be seen as democratically favouring daylight saving.

Regular and longer-term State Scene readers will be aware that this column has proudly emphasised the benefits of true or real democracy, ahead of minority smoke-filled room factional political party wheeling and dealing governing as practiced in WA.

For that reason, State Scene has often urged that WA adopts Swiss-style direct democracy, which means all legislation passed by parliament being open to challenge by citizen-initiated referendums; that is, statewide votes for or against if a set percentage of voters signed a temporary blocking petition.

That’s how the Swiss have governed themselves at the local, cantonal (state) and national levels for well over a century, thereby making their country the world’s only true democracy, and not coincidently a prosperous one at that.

WA would do well to adopt the Swiss approach.

True or direct democracy leads to better and more efficient governance, while the variant the Birney-D’Orazio duo feels at ease with leads to discord and dissatisfaction.

Unlike what they may think, one cannot have too much democracy.

Anyone who cares to look a little more closely at Switzerland’s democratic, or citizen-initiated referendum, tradition will note that one of its outcomes has been a feeling that individuals are treated fairly, and not disregarded by their law makers as is happening in WA.

This crucial point is brought out well in an article by Colin Talbot, Manchester Business School’s professor of public policy and management, and carried in the June 9-15 2006, issue of Public Finance.

There, Professor Talbot alluded to a recently published book titled, Happiness and Economics, by Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, which considered Swiss-style democracy.

“Essentially, authors Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer argue that humans value ‘fair play’ even when they personally lose,” Professor Talbot said.

“And ‘fair play’, in a public service context, includes not only fair processes in deciding who gets what, but fair and inclusive processes for deciding public policy in the first place – i.e. democracy.

“With some fascinating data they show that the Swiss cantons that most used referendums achieve higher levels of happiness with public institutions than others.”

Sadly, and tragically, this cannot be said of WA, where tiny bands of activist MPs set about imposing upon an entire population what majorities have democratically rejected over and over.


Subscription Options